Networking_MOU-569481-edited.jpgI can’t emphasize the importance of networking enough.

A wide and diverse network of people hasn’t just helped me get jobs, it’s helped me get better at those jobs. When HubSpot announced plans for a Tokyo office, the ins-and-outs of hiring in Japan were foreign to me. But as the head of global recruitment, I needed to become the subject matter expert, fast.

The first thing I did was tapped into my network.

Having connections who had seen this movie before at their own companies and could offer advice on how to get started was invaluable. It makes you want to ask yourself: How can I pay it forward? Networking is a two-way street and there’s tremendous satisfaction in helping people  solve a problem.

Not to mention, there’s this little thing called the ever-expanding network economy. And we’re living in it. I’ll be bold here and go as far as to say that I believe your network is going to become more important (or at least as important) as your skills and experience. With that, here are ways you can get better at making meaningful connections, no awkward cocktail parties required.

1. Become an Expert in Something

There’s an increasing demand for “T-shaped” employees, or people who have a variety of knowledge and experience. While I agree a broad skill set is invaluable, when it comes to making connections and leaving an impression, having a “hook” is paramount. What’s one topic you’re passionate about or have great instincts for? You want to become an expert in it so that when challenges related to that topic come up, so does your name.

For me, it was recruitment. Once I decided that the recruiting world was where I wanted to build my career, I invested heavily in it. I flew from Ireland to New York to take a course on sourcing with “new” search engine technologies in 1999. Then I launched a blog called the “Irish Cyber Sleuth” and published heavily for about four to five years on all things recruitment. I also set up a LinkedIn Group called “Irish Recruiters” which has about 4,500 members today. It took about 18 months for it to reach 500 participants, and then presto: The group became community-driven. Members started to share information and ideas with one another organically. This group became a huge asset for me to learn from others, meet others, and give back to others.

Whatever career path you choose or topic you’re passionate about, you want to excel in it. This is true for internal networking, too. Say you want to make a lateral move within your own organization. It’s going to be much easier to start those conversations when you’re high-achieving in your current role. Start to build and share deep domain knowledge so that people, at your company and in your industry, seek you out for advice.

2. Always Be Helping

This funny thing happens when you go out of your way to help other people: It comes back around. I’ve always been amazed at how offering support, guidance, and advice exponentially increases your own opportunity for growth. It’s like some unwritten physics law of good karma, “Do well unto others, and over time, good things will be done unto you”.

The key is to be invested in others’ success; helping isn’t about checking a box. Celebrate when you get the opportunity to help someone. Seek out opportunities to help people in your network. The most valuable connections, for you and for them, are the ones that are genuine.

Think about the last time someone asked you for help. Now, how could you have gone a step further for them? That should be your baseline. Instead of waiting for someone to reach for an introduction, connect two people in your network proactively who you know would add value for one another. If someone is starting a company and needs advice on hiring, don’t just send them a link to a blog post on recruitment. Offer to get coffee with them and offer advice on their unique situation.

Consider it an investment in someone else’s growth, but also an investment in your well-being. Unconditional, genuine giving is good for growing your network, sure, but it’s also good for the mind.

3. Practice Active Listening

My dad always quotes the great Greek stoic, Zeno, who said “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say”. It’s easy to think successful networking is about telling your story and dominating the conversation. You want to leave an impression, after all. But to leave the right impression, it’s important to listen more than you talk.

It sounds silly, but active listening can be hard. When someone’s talking, are you thinking about what you’re going to say next, or are you truly hearing and digesting the conversation? If it’s not the latter, you’re likely not forming a meaningful connection.

So, practice.

Grab a friend or coworker and take turns talking to one another, uninterrupted, for two minutes about an easy prompt like “What’s your dream holiday?” When it’s their turn, consider what else is running through your mind while they’re talking and how much of their response you’re actually soaking up. You might be surprised how challenging it is to do nothing but listen.

4. Don't Underestimate the Follow-Up

Let’s talk about economics for a second. (Bare with me.) The Pareto Principle states that 20% of the invested input in a given situation is responsible for 80% of the outcome. I like to think about this relationship between input and output through the lens of networking.

Imagine networking was a simple algorithm where “trying to meet someone new” and “following up” were the main inputs. How much time do you think people spend on each? Most would invest their time in energy in trying to meet someone new, and far less time and energy on the follow up.

I’d argue that the follow-up, though, is the 20% that will determine how successful your new connection is. Meeting someone new is the first step, but solidifying the connection for the future is all in the art of following up. So flip that equation on its head and spend time on sincere, quick, thoughtful feedback and outreach. You’d be surprised how far a good follow-up note can go.

5. Do Your Homework

Has networking largely been to thank for my career growth? Absolutely. Does that make me the expert in how to do it? Not exactly. So don’t just take it from me, research the whole world of networking data, information, and advice.

  • Who better to learn from than the king of networks Reid Hoffman? I enjoyed the LinkedIn co-founder’s two new books The Alliance and The Start Up of You. Both delve into the power of networks and give practical advice on how to build one that becomes a competitive advantage.
  • I also recommend Kelly Hoey’s recently launched book, Build Your Dream Network. It offers solid advice and is packed with interesting infographics, flowcharts, and visual data.
  • Lastly, this TEDEd talk from Lisa Greene Chau is great for those of us who are a little more introverted.

Finding Your Network Effect

“If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people” – Chinese Proverb  

At the end of the day, networking won’t always be easy, no matter how many tips and tricks you have up your sleeve. Uncomfortable, new situations are all par for the course. But so is growth. I’ve never once gone to a networking event or met someone for coffee and regretted it. That’s because networking is a long game, so be patient and be open to new connections. You never know where they might lead and how they might have an effect on your career.

Originally published Feb 2, 2017 7:00:00 AM, updated January 18 2023